’04 Calif. report urged better cooperation with military in fires | SierraSun.com

’04 Calif. report urged better cooperation with military in fires

Michael R. Blood
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) ” Three years ago, a panel appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said finding ways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne to battle out of control wildfires should be a “high priority.” Yet, last week, delays launching aircraft revealed a system still suffering from communication and planning shortfalls.

The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, formed after 2003 wildfires destroyed more than 3,600 homes, urged the state to “clarify and improve” policies and regulations for using military aircraft in firefighting. The report also recommended a host of other changes, including buying new helicopters and fire engines.

Schwarzenegger said as far back as September 2004 that his administration was working with the federal government to make sure plans to use military helicopters and airplanes were “efficient and effective.” However, when the latest fires flamed out of control on Oct. 21, not all available military aircraft were quickly pressed into service.

The Associated Press reported last week that Marine, Navy and National Guard helicopters were grounded because state personnel required to be on board weren’t immediately available. And the National Guard’s two newest C-130 cargo planes couldn’t help because they’ve yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

“It’s very troubling that something that was identified as a high priority doesn’t appear to me to have been treated with the urgency and respect that it deserved,” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat who heads the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security. Nava has promised hearings, as soon as mid-November, to review the state’s response to the wildfires.

Military aircraft are called in to supplement state and local fire resources, when needed. That was the case last week when more than a dozen fires exploded amid gusting Santa Ana winds that fanned the flames, which devoured more than a half-million acres and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

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After insisting for days that the winds were the reason some helicopters didn’t get airborne more quickly, Schwarzenegger acknowledged Saturday that the firefighting effort might have been more effective if more state “fire spotters,” also called helicopter managers, had been available at the outset.

The spotters play a crucial role coordinating water or retardant drops and under state rules each federal helicopter must carry one.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, was among several members of California’s congressional delegation harshly critical of the state for its handling of military helicopters in the first days of the fires. He said the state has created rules regarding spotters that it can’t fulfill.

Sheldon Gilbert, who heads the California Fire Chiefs Association, said progress on issues regarding military helicopters has been made since the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission issued its report. For example, he noted that some of those helicopters now carry radios to communicate directly with ground crews.

“Is there more to do? Yes,” said Gilbert, who is chief of the Alameda County Fire Department. “I’m sure there are things we can do in the future to continue to streamline the process.”

Gregory Renick, spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services, did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

One key issue involves use of Marine helicopters. The state has agreements with the Navy and National Guard that, among other things, allow for state firefighting personnel to train with those branches. There’s still no such agreement with the Marines, and the Camp Pendleton base was near some of the worst of the recent fires.

Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state forestry department, said the war in Iraq stood in the way of an agreement. He has also argued that Marine helicopters would be a distraction, because they lacked training with state firefighters.

“The Marine Corps, because of deployment pressure (in Iraq) can’t make a commitment to train and provide resources at any given time,” he said.

Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a Marines spokesman, did not return a phone call Monday.

U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said in an interview Monday that improvements had been made since the 2004 report to get military aircraft involved in firefighting. But the system can always be better, he added, and pointed to the lack of a training agreement with the Marines as “probably something we need to look into.”

The Forest Service is an important player in California firefighting, since the state includes vast stretches of federal land. For example, parts of the Cleveland National Forest in Orange County were charred in last week’s fires.

On Saturday, state and federal officials blamed each other for delays getting water-dropping helicopters off the ground. The head of the state’s firefighting agency lashed out at the Marines and Forest Service, saying the military failed to commit to the training necessary to launch helicopters more quickly and that the Forest Service had neglected to provide enough helicopter “spotters” to launch aircraft when they became available.

But Rey disagreed with accounts by Hunter and others that some military aircraft were stranded, potentially hampering the firefighting. Heavy winds prevented more aircraft from being used in the fires’ early days, not tie-ups in bureaucracy or staff shortages, he said.

“The military aircraft were available and ready for use by the time it was possible for them to be in use,” he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.